Seconds into the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening, speculation took off about the political future of Stacey Abrams, the Georgia leader who was delivering the remarks on behalf of her party.
“Stacey Abrams should run for President,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, quickly garnering thousands of likes.
Stacey Abrams should run for President
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) February 6, 2019
Leah Daughtry, longtime Democratic Party operative and former chairwoman of the party convention, said Ms. Abrams was “just as good as a candidate as any — and maybe even better than some.” Amanda Litman, the former email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said, “If she wants to be, she will be president one day — whether it’s 2020 or 2032 or 2040.”
Stacey Abrams for Senate or president or emperor or honestly whatever she damn pleases.
— Amanda Litman (@amandalitman) February 6, 2019
The flash of enthusiasm for Ms. Abrams came as no surprise to Georgia Democrats, who rallied behind her run to become governor there last year, which would have made her the first black women to lead a state. And her well-received speech Tuesday evening will most likely intensify the current efforts by national party leaders to recruit Ms. Abrams to run for Senate in 2020.
But some of her supporters and other Democrats are also asking whether she should be running for an even bigger position — and why the clamoring has been louder for some white male politicians to run than for her.
Democrats are facing a rare, wide-open presidential nomination contest, and questions of ideology, tone and identity are already beginning to rattle a growing list of hopefuls who have been apologizing for past positions or statements. During her campaign last year and in her remarks Tuesday night, Ms. Abrams’s ability to articulate an uncompromising liberal message while also blending themes of unity and togetherness impressed both ardent leftists and Democrats more toward the political center — a rare combination in such polarizing times.
“Our most urgent work is to realize Americans’ dreams of today and tomorrow,” Ms. Abrams said. “To carve a path to independence and prosperity that can last a lifetime.”
She also made several calls for working with Republicans.
“Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders,” she said. “President Reagan understood this. President Obama understood this. Americans understand this. And Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders.”
Mr. Pfeiffer, the former Obama adviser, said in an email after his tweet: “I have no idea if she can win the nomination, but neither does anyone else.”
“What I do know is that she can inspire people to activism and that is key to a Democrat winning back the White House,” he said.
Ms. Abrams, the 45-year-old former Georgia House minority leader who lost her bid for the governor’s mansion by fewer than 60,000 votes, focused her remarks on themes that have been the focus of her political career — expanding voting rights and health care and working on bipartisan issues like criminal justice reform, access to education, and transportation improvements. But in doing so, as she stood in front of a diverse group of women and men at a labor union center in Atlanta, she gave national Democrats a glimpse of why Georgia liberals have long called her the “future of the Democratic Party.”
“She has certainly earned the right to be taken seriously as a national player,” said the Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “It’s just the old assumptions of race and gender that make it difficult for people to give her the credit she deserves.”
Sam Park, a member of the Georgia House, said: “Regardless of what she decides to do, whether it’s running for Senate in 2020, or governor in 2022, or president of the United States, I am deeply and firmly committed to supporting her.”
“She’s that kind of leader,” he added.
The longing in some quarters for Ms. Abrams to run for president — which comes more in hope rather than expectation — comes as the Democratic presidential field is poised to balloon. The field, already the most diverse in history, could soon be adding new faces: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who plans to announce her 2020 decision on Sunday, and two previous candidates, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who are considering running again.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, has received substantial presidential buzz since losing his 2018 Senate race against the Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz, even landing an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Tuesday as part of a celebrity slate that included actors like Michael B. Jordan and Bradley Cooper.
But some Democrats say it is Ms. Abrams, not Mr. O’Rourke, who was the breakout candidate from the 2018 midterms who should be generating presidential speculation. (Ms. Winfrey, to be sure, was a strong supporter of Ms. Abrams’s bid for governor last year.)
“If folks are looking at Beto because he ran in a red state differently, or because he inspired millions of people in his state and many more out of the state — if it’s because he ran a different type of candidacy where he went to every region of the state and spoke the same type of vision — then surely Stacey Abrams meets and exceeds that standard,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director for the progressive Working Families Party.
“I find it perplexing that more pundits and more of the political establishment aren’t discussing Stacey in the same breath that they discuss Beto,” he said.
The openness to more candidates reflects the restiveness among many Democratic voters who fear that none of their current and likely candidates can appease all of the party’s ideological factions, which are sometimes bitterly opposed.
More liberal candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mr. Sanders have energized the party’s anti-Wall Street wing with their desire to rein in unchecked capitalism, but have upset social justice advocates in recent months with high-profile blunders on issues of race and identity. Candidates seen as more centrist, including Senators Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have run afoul of some liberals for their unwillingness to directly target large corporations and wealthy Americans in their economic policies.
Mr. O’Rourke has intrigued some longtime party officials because he could possibly excite both groups of Democrats. But his liberal record has been questioned by liberal hard-liners in recent weeks as his voting history in the House has received additional scrutiny. And while his response to a question about black football players protesting police brutality went viral on social media during the midterm elections, it remains unknown whether a white man can be nominated to lead a Democratic Party that is, in 2020, increasingly reliant on votes from women and racial minorities — and particularly women of color.
“People try to serve as gatekeepers, and say ‘this person looks like a kind of candidate we could back,’” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a political network of progressive women. “But, for me, from the very beginning, I looked at Stacey Abrams and said ‘this she is exactly what the country needs.’”
Ms. Abrams has indicated that she intends to run for public office again, but her advisers in Georgia said she had yet to make a decision about when or which office to pursue. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, have implored her to run in 2020 against Senator David Perdue, a Republican, but longtime friends said Ms. Abrams had long had her heart set on being governor.
For Ms. Abrams’s backers, it’s not only her identity as a black woman that excites them, but that she ran a campaign in Georgia that was built on liberal promises such as expanding access to Medicaid and access to affordable college for in-state students. For Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a co-founder of Higher Heights, a political group focused on engaging black women, the party’s decision to select Ms. Abrams to speak Tuesday night was a step in the right direction.
“I think having a black woman deliver the response really sends a message to the Democratic Party, and particularly to black women,” she said. “It says that at least in this moment, they see us and hear us and they want us to be part of the broader narrative of what it means to follow a democratic ideal.”
She said that message did not come across in the two previous Democratic responses to Mr. Trump’s annual address.
Last year, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts delivered the State of the Union response in from a car factory in New England, speaking partly in Spanish but largely focusing on issues of the economy.
And in 2017, Steve Beshear, a former Kentucky governor, delivered the party’s response from a no-frills diner with a stoic crowd behind him. During Mr. Beshear’s speech, every pictured person surrounding him was white.
As for Ms. Abrams, the crowd behind her was racially diverse and featured more women than men, and blended liberal priorities with bipartisan appeals.